Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: First Lady’s Political Ambitions Draw Fire

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Feb 13 2004 (IPS) - ”Now she is sought out more than I am,” said Mexican President Vicente Fox, referring to his wife Marta Sahagún, who has admitted that she is interested in succeeding him – an ambition that has drawn a flood of criticism from all sides.

Sahagún, who is so much at the forefront that her short bio on the Mexican presidency’s web site occupies nearly double the space taken up by Fox’s, has even been addressed as ”Mrs. President” on several occasions during tours of Mexico and trips abroad.

This week, Sahagún finally acknowledged that she has her eye on the presidential candidacy of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), to which both she and Fox belong, and that she would like to run for president in 2006, when her husband’s six-year term is over.

Although her marriage to the president does not stand in the way of a Sahagún candidacy, legislators have begun to discuss the possibility of passing a new law that would keep her from running in the elections, arguing that if she ends up in the race, she will enjoy unfair advantages.

They also ordered an audit of the president’s office, to verify whether it had given funds to Sahagún’s private charity foundation Vamos Mexico (Let’s Go, Mexico).

According to opinion polls, Fox’s wife is one of the most popular figures on the Mexican political scene.

Polls on the 2006 presidential elections show that she is right behind popular Mexico City Mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leading contender. If she won her party’s nomination, she would be Mexico’s first-ever female presidential candidate.

She is untiring in her anti-poverty activities. In just one day, Sahagún can ride in a helicopter with a large entourage of staff and guests to remote parts of the country, grant an interview to the media, inaugurate an art exhibit in the capital, visit an orphanage, and publicly shed tears over some injustice.

”Sahagún is using and abusing her position to mix private and public affairs, while she is increasingly eclipsing her husband in the limelight,” José Antonio Crespo, a political scientist at the Centre for Economic Research and Teaching, commented to IPS.

The first lady, who was Fox’s spokeswoman before she married him in 2001, says she is open to all criticism, but she aggressively defends herself by invoking arguments against sexism and ”machismo”.

Mexican women are ready to hold any office today, ”even though there are still some who believe we are inferior,” she constantly repeats.

”They can keep trying to beat us down physically, psychologically, morally, spiritually, publicly and politically, but that is over now,” she said early this month, after the British publication the Financial Times published a lengthy article questioning the transparency of Vamos Mexico’s financial accounting practices.

Local writer Germán Dehesa said someone should explain to Fox’s wife that ”the criticisms are not aimed against ‘women’ in general, but against ‘a woman’ named Marta Sahagún.”

”If the first lady wants to run for the presidency, she should explain how she will do without all of the elements on which she depends: the planes, helicopters, and staff at the Los Pinos presidential residency and the security services,” in order to make the race an equal one, said former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda.

”Sahagún continues positioning herself to become a candidate, which to me seems totally inappropriate, because that would be equivalent to re-election,” which is prohibited by law in Mexico, said former president Miguel de la Madrid.

The secretary-general of the Mexican bishops’ conference, Carlos Aguiar, said Sahagún should not run for the presidency, ”because she does not have the experience of holding an elected post.”

Criticism has even come from the women’s movement.

”A limit should be put on Sahagún’s activism, because she takes advantage of her position to hog the funding that used to go to organised social groups, and she has diverted the agenda of the women’s movement into the terrain of the political right,” said María Mejía, head of the non-governmental organisation Catholic Women for the Right to Decide.

As the head of a private foundation like Vamos Mexico, the president’s wife has rigged the field of philanthropy ”because few donors can resist the pressure implicit in the fact that fund-raising events are organised from the presidential residency,” said analyst Miguel Granados.

But Sahagún says no one will stand in the way of ”her work and love for Mexico.”

On an official tour last month to the city of Mérida in the southeastern peninsula of Yucatan, Fox described his wife as ”a woman who is capable of doing everything,” and added that now ”she is sought out more than I am.”

In public ceremonies, Sahagún is often seen greeting members of the public with the traditional kiss on the cheek, praying to God, crying, or going on about her ”profound” ties to her country, her husband, and his ”political project”.

Sahagún, who does not have a university degree, and whose tertiary-level education is limited to courses in business administration at a university in the Mexican state of Guanajuato and English courses at Cambridge, is known for her love of designer clothing and costly jewelry, and has her own team of dressmakers, hairdressers and public image advisers.

Like Spain’s Queen Sofía, Sahagún is partial to Escada designer garments, which range in price from 1,000 to 4,000 dollars, and she shares with Princess Carolina of Monaco and Queen Rania of Jordan a love for Chanel tailored suits and accessories.

”Marta could have maintained the discreet but influential position she occupied during the time of political struggle (when she supported Fox in his election campaign), and in his first year of power. But her ambition has gotten out of hand,” and today she has become an awkward figure for the government, according to analyst Sergio Sarmiento.

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